Researchers create technology that’s powered by thin air

As the cord-cutting wireless generation, we’ve managed to distance ourselves from most potential fetters. But there’s one limitation from which we haven’t quite rid ourselves — until now. The battery, that pesky power source that’s constantly cramping your style, may finally be a thing of the past. At least, that’s the hope of the University of Washington’s Sensor Lab, where researchers have created the WISP — Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform. It’s a combination sensor and computing chip that requires neither a battery nor a wired power source to operate. So what does it run on? Thing air.

Well, not quite. Essentially, the WISP works by way of the radio waves any old RFID (radio-frequency identification) reader sends into the air. These common devices are often seen at retail locations, and use electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags associated with objects — you’ve probably seen them as security tags on clothes. WISP pulls those waves out of its surroundings (which is to say, the air), and then converts them into electricity, thereby eliminating the need for a battery.

Don’t get too excited yet — as Fast Company reports, this novel little device isn’t meant to replace the chips currently found in your smartphone or your laptop. Rather, it’s comparable to the processor of a Fitbit, and also boasts embedded accelerometers and temperature sensors. But still, it’s pretty fast. With approximately the same bandwidth as Bluetooth Low Energy mode, you could run a wearable on WISP and download a new app or update your software, all without the need of a battery or a plug-in. And this is the first time something like that has been made possible.

Related: Apple patent shows headphones that seamlessly switch between wired and wireless

“It’s not going to run a video game, but it can track sensor data, do some minimal processing tasks, and communicate with the outside world,” Aaron Parks, a researcher at the University of Washington Sensor Lab, tells Fast Company. More exciting still, he says, WISP can be used by architects and inspectors, where the technology would be able to detect damage or structural abnormalities, simply by embedding one of these guys into the building. This would eliminate the need to actually look inside the structures — rather, data from WISP could be harvested and interpreted. Really, anything to do with implants could benefit quite immediately from WISP technology, experts say, and while we still may be a long ways off from completely divorcing ourselves from batteries, we’re getting a few steps closer.

“Imagine if your wallpaper could run apps, or change color to match your lighting, without having to wire it into anything,” says Parks. “That’s not out of the question anymore.”

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